The Sixers played their second dull game in a row against a team that now has plenty of lives, losing 103-88 to the Raptors to arrange another trip back to Canada. They look like a team that lacks answers right now.
Here’s what I saw.
• I think it’s fair to say that Tobias Harris has been the best player in this series for Philadelphia because Joel Embiid’s highlights have been cut down by some pretty brutal downturns. Night after night, Harris has been the only guy who has brought it consistently. He looks like a completely different player than he started this season, and honestly he looks like a different guy than the one we’ve seen most of his career.
Harris, buying into his role at both ends of the floor, is a game-changer, not enough to lift their ceiling, but determined enough to help them set a higher floor. With Harden looking out of the way as he looks on the offensive, they need someone to play with an extra degree of determination, and Harris has had that, and he has helped release the gears when the attack goes slower to to crawl.
That’s something of a development considering what we used to see from Harris. His confidence is hard to miss when he gets catch-and-shoot opportunities on the offensive. It’s still pretty shocking how quickly some of his attempts go up after seeing several years of Harris dribble out of open appearance or hold the ball until the opportunity dried out. And it’s the other end where his behavior has noticeably changed, with Harris communicating as loudly and as often as he has ever done while trying to dig in against Pascal Siakam.
In the last couple of games, he has not had much success stopping Siakam, but the Cameroonian striker deserves his own credit level for really difficult shots, making good defensive possessions meaningless. I will not complain about the one Sixers player who has looked up to the challenge in this series.
Without a hot shooting night for Danny Green, this would probably have been a biblical ass kick for the Raptors. If there’s any consolation in Green being forced into a bigger role than he’s probably capable of at this stage of his career, it’s that he’s the guy I’m least worried about folding under pressure.
The Sixers ended up wasting what was a good night for Green, despite some big misses in the fourth, but they will need him because there are a lot of guys across the list who look very tight right now. They should lean on him as a source of peace.
The bad one
• James Harden is on the verge of potentially having the biggest contract in NBA history. As a table setter and playmaker, he has shown a lot of value to Philadelphia in the time since he was acquired. As a goal scorer who can go out and get you buckets when it counts, he has fallen far short and his failures in Monday’s match were easy to predict in advance when Fred VanVleet was knocked out of that match.
I do not remember anyone whose scoring ceiling was as high as Hardens at his highest and looked out of their depth and tried to put the ball in the hoop. Everything except for playmaking looks like a task right now. Even matchups with Gary Trent Jr., who was a source of success for him early in this series, looked like a fight through Monday’s game 5, Harden got stuck before he can break through Toronto’s first defensive line.
The ability to get to and finish at the rim means something to everyone, and this is especially important for Harden, who needs the threat of attacking the paint to keep the defense honest and set up his stepback jumper. Toronto perimeter guys have been able to gather him a ton in this series, not so afraid of his ability to walk past them after a bucket.
And strangely enough, it’s Harden who overthinks as much as any other player in the attack. The guy who has made the score look just as easy as almost everyone else in the league’s history misses opportunities that are right in front of him to take, passes out of open threes and lacks clean attempts on the edge in his attempts at to distribute the ball. . Reluctance to let open shots go has crept a little into his game – there were a few mumbles of “SHOOOOOT” around Wells Fargo Center in Game 5, reminiscent of watching the Flyers scrub during another Peco Power Play .
I’m not really sure what the Sixers need to do to make his life easier, as he’s not taking advantage of what he’s already getting. Baseline, he needs to be better and I do not know what will get him there beyond an offseason to regain some degree of explosiveness. He’s not exactly off with his previous playoff rumor.
• Honestly, things are not looking much better for Tyrese Maxey at the moment, although he is able to remove the corpus of a highlight-roll finish from time to time. Doc Rivers said over the weekend that Maxey tends to suffer when the Sixers don’t get into their offensive line, but the length Toronto has all over the floor makes it hard for Maxey to find a curl. The Raptors have neutralized him and that gives them few outs with the Harden fighting.
But I would argue that the biggest accusation against one or both guys is how uncombulated Philadelphia’s crime looks right now. The Raptors are in fact running a lineup without guards with Van Vleet unavailable (Trent Jr. is a kind of half-guard in my eyes) and look like the much more cohesive team. Philadelphia’s sluggish and slow offensive directly reflects how Harden runs the show.
• There was a stretch in the first half where it looked like Joel Embiid would go Hulk on the Raptors and put an end to this series, thumb damage to hell. After a sleepy start to the game, he began to establish store deep in Toronto’s painted area, creating extra possessions with offensive rebounds, making mistakes from desperate Raptors players, and making the Sixers look like a competent offensive team.
In the end, it did not last long. And more importantly, Embiid’s defensive decision-making and abilities were absent even when he was on the run. You can attribute something strange in his play to the hand injury, but we have rarely seen teams have success with him at that end of the floor. But the Raptors did just that, getting him caught on screens and stuck between two worlds as they tried to deal with Precious Achiuwa.
To put it mildly, it is not a matchup that the Sixers can lose for an extended period of a match if they hope to win playoff matches. Achiuwa was able to beat him in every way, blew off him as he shut off ruthlessly and even took him into the weight room near the basket and scored over / through Embiid on a bucket towards the end of the third.
If he’s going to be out there playing in this series, let alone any other series besides this one, he simply has to be more locked in. The hand injury is not an all-encompassing excuse for him to make bad decisions and misunderstand his task, or let players he is better, bigger and stronger than take it into his chest. A team follows its star player’s lead, and after starting the series locked in and ready to compete, he makes mistakes that would have been scolded when he still found a foothold in the league. He does not see everyone there.
They would be in much worse shape without him, but they are not in good shape with him. Not sure what to do with it. If he does not dig deep and lead, I do not know who on this list should go.
• This is not a team that can survive when their attacks are so bad. A team with a better offensive would definitely blow the doors off of them.
• Sixers fans are going to be crazy for buh’e to their team going into the break of a playoff game, but these people did their damn best to try to get them into this game all night. The evening could best be summed up with the standing ovation they gave the home team early in the fourth quarter with the Sixers down nine, only for Toronto to go straight down the main street and come up with a lob to Thad Young before the ovation was over.
The lack of focus and mistakes in execution were simply unforgivable for a playoff game. Looking bad is one thing, looking uninterested in the game is completely embarrassing.
• Matisse Thybulle checked into the match for the first time on Monday to a mixed response from the crowd, booing and cheers that both came down from the rafters after his vaccination status caused him to miss two matches. Anyone who was annoyed by his choice that made him fail the team did not come out of this one who felt more rosy about him as a player.
The Raptors abused his inability to knock jumpers down, and when he had missed his third attempt, no one in the arena expected him to shoot when he got the ball. It included Scottie Barnes, who sat waiting for him to send the ball back to Tyrese Maxey instead of moving towards him, collecting the revenue that came as a result. After the Raptors scored on a runout, Rivers decided he had had enough, calling a timeout in part to park Thybulle on the bench.
The question, “Who would defend the other team’s best player?” came up a lot when Thybulle’s name was in trade negotiations around the deadline, but you can see why it’s not comprehensive enough to think of a player using only one side of the game. Thybulle is so unspeakably bad on the offensive most of the time that it’s borderline impossible for him to make up for it at the other end, let alone be so good that you can not take him off the floor.
Rivers, of course, do not escape blame for Thybulle’s failures and that the abominable lineup was on the floor in the first place. The Sixers opened the second with Reed, Niang and Thybulle on the floor along with Maxey and Harris, and put three guys who would charitably be stamped with question marks on the floor with two guys who are not really able to carry them.
If the Sixers lack answers, it reflects the head coach. They do not care much about doing anything on attack, going through the motions on sets, even when trying to run them.
• Look, I’m not saying the Raptors are coming all the way back in this series. They still have the harder task ahead of them, and a good shooting night is all it takes for Philadelphia to advance to the next round. But you’re lying to yourself and to me if you tell me you’re not worried right now.
Keep in mind that this series could easily have been 2-2 if Embiid had not gone completely wild in the second half of Game 3. As a team, they did not play well in that win, even though it was still a win. The Raptors have cleaned up the series, cleaned up their mistakes and found a way to put fear on a team that should have put the series away already. And the Sixers don’t exactly have a group filled with proven playoff players and mentally tough vets who have come through when times are tough.
Any benefit of the doubt you thought they had is smoked.
• We had cookies and ice cream in the media room on Monday. At least it was good.
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